Inchcailloch to shoot down Missile

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As weather forecasters warned of a bitingly cold weekend yesterday, many a prayer will have been offered up from Portman Square for the well- being of next Thursday's Boxing Day cards. The nationwide freeze which blanked out the entire holiday programme 12 months ago is still a painful memory for racing administrators as well as bookies, since it resulted in a drop in annual betting turnover figures and thus in the Levy.

Another similar loss would be a significant blow at what is already a difficult time and the British Horseracing Board stepped in yesterday to ensure that at least one meeting will take place by sanctioning an extra all-weather card at Lingfield to bring the number of Boxing Day meetings up to 11.

Nor does it help that today's excellent card at Ascot coincides with the final Saturday before Christmas, when minds and wallets will be more concerned with those difficult last-minute presents. There is almost pounds 150,000 in added money on offer at the Berkshire track on a programme which includes one Grade One event and two Grades Twos, not to mention the Betterware Cup Handicap Chase, the most obvious betting event, for good measure. Even in a season when time is unusually precious, it is worth taking a few minutes to sort out this last contest in particular.

The first problem to consider is just how much effect the drizzle which fell on Ascot for much of yesterday will have had on the going. Though it is still predicted as generally good-to-firm, water has an unfortunate effect on Ascot, and can rapidly turn the ground into sticky goo. The ground was fast at the five-day stage and trainers made their entries accordingly, so any softening of the surface might count against several of today's runners, Strong Medicine and Unguided Missile (for whom three miles is at the top-end of the stamina range) being the most obvious candidates.

The possibility that Unguided Missile might not quite get home is an intriguing one, since the major bookmakers makes him the morning-line favourite. He makes little appeal at around 3-1, but the same cannot be said of Inchcailloch, his principal market rival.

The winner not only of the Cesarewitch Handicap at Newmarket but also three chases in the last two months, Jeff King's chaser has apparently found a new burst of improvement at the age of seven. And, while the 7- 2 offered by Coral this morning will not bring retirement significantly closer, it is still a very fair price. Major Bell, runner-up to the handicap blot Strong Promise at Ascot four weeks ago, may be a danger over today's extra half-mile, but INCHCAILLOCH (nap 2.20) will surely take all the beating.

We can only hope that the BBC's technicians will remember to press "record" on the video at 12.35 and allow viewers a good look - not just the last 200 yards - at the novice chase which opens the card. Simply Dashing, among the most impressive novice chasers seen out this season, has the obvious credentials, but there are several novices of great potential - including Or Royal, Cheryl's Lad and Country Star - in opposition, not to mention Oh So Risky, who should need little introduction. The race will figure prominently in form study before the Cheltenham Festival in March.

So too should the Long Walk Hurdle, the day's richest event, and a fascinating contest in which only Top Spin can be immediately discounted, and that as a result of his attitude problems. The race at Newbury three weeks ago, in which What A Question defeated Trainglot, will loom large in most punters' calculations, but it would be wise not to overlook the claims of Pleasure Shared (next best 1.45). A winner over fences earlier this season, Philip Hobbs's runner is also very capable over hurdles, and would not be inconvenienced by any ease in the ground.

Make A Stand, recent winner of a competitive handicap at Sandown, should take the Kennel Gate Novice Hurdle, though as with the novice chase, there are several opponents with potential and impeccable connectons who deserve respect. The hard cash may be better saved for Mr Percy (3.20), who is lightly raced and improving, and may surprise some better-known rivals, including Paddy's Return, last season's Triumph Hurdle winner.